Cedar Street Times guest column 9-25-2015
by Alexis Celeste Bunten
Not so very long ago, doing research for a life story or family history involved poring over old documents, diaries, courthouse records and the like. Those sources are still very important, but today we have another exciting tool for researching into family history—DNA. Our guest columnist this week is Alexis Celeste Bunten, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist who has published widely about the meaning of identity, heritage and cultural travel. Dr. Bunten has nearly twenty years experience as an applied researcher using techniques from anthropology, cognitive science and psychology. Dr. Bunten’s book, So, How Long Have You Been Native? chronicles her experience as a tour guide in small-town Alaska. Alexis resides in Del Rey Oaks.
Imagine walking in the very steps of your distant ancestors; to set foot where they lived, loved, suffered, and sacrificed. For most Americans, this is impossible because we simply don’t know where all of our ancestors came from, much less the joys, trials and tribulations they faced.
As an anthropology professor, one of my assignments is for students to trace their family background to learn how their lives are shaped by their families’ places in culture and history. Many of my hundreds of past students discovered that their parents had no recollection of the generation beyond their own parents. These stories were simply lost among American families who chose or were forced to leave the past behind.
My grandfather, Gosta Dagg, was a lifelong fisherman in Alaska. As a young child, he seemed somewhat mysterious to me, sitting at his desk surrounded by papers and magnifying glasses. He never lost his Swedish accent despite nearly 70 years in America. Gosta came to the United States in his teens, and followed my Native grandmother to her village, where they raised their family. All I know about his previous life in Sweden is that he is from the oldest existing lineage of Swedish nobility. I have always wanted to know why he left, especially given his important family background. And I wanted to explore clues left behind to learn more about who he was and how his decisions may have shaped my own life.
Reality TV, Swedish-style
This past summer, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discover the answers to these questions through my participation in a popular Swedish reality television show, called Allt för Sverige, (The Great Swedish Adventure). Similar to the American shows Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Roadshow, Allt för Sverige gives viewers a historical and personalized journey into the past. The premise of show is to take a group of Americans with Swedish ancestry and have them travel together throughout Sweden to learn about their family history. Each episode takes place in a new location, where one contestant is treated to a “special day.” They are taken to the places their ancestors lived and presented with a personal letter telling the stories of their fore-bearers. At each location, the Americans on the show participate in fun activities, including “Swedish school,” to learn more about the culture. At the end of every week, contestants participate in challenges, and the loser has to leave the show. The person left standing at the end wins a family reunion with their living Swedish relatives.
While waiting for my great Swedish adventure to begin, I dug for clues to my past in my genes. I had my DNA coded a few years back with the company called 23andMe, and I highly recommend it to everyone who is curious about where they come from and the clues that DNA can tell us about ourselves. 23andMe has a really cool feature that shows you where your living relatives are in the world by comparing your DNA to those of others who have also taken DNA tests with the company.
It turns out I have many biological relatives in Sweden, mostly identified as “fourth cousins” or people who share the same great-great-great-grandparents, that is, my grandfather’s father’s grandfather. Since the rest of his family stayed behind in Sweden, I imagine that I have at least second cousins living in Sweden who share great-grandparents with me. And, while this map marks the locations of my living Swedish relatives, it can’t tell me where my ancestors lived, because people move over time.
The Quest to Learn Why Her Grandfather Left Sweden
I combed through my DNA for more clues that would help me to better understand my grandfather’s decision to emigrate. The presence of a specific type of dopamine receptor, coded in a particular mutation locus of DNA, has been associated with a higher propensity for risk-taking. In our fore-bearers’ generation, this might have manifested in a higher likelihood to emigrate than in family members who stayed home. As it turns out, I don’t have this particular mutation, so I would have to look for my answers elsewhere.
In the end, my initial search of biological evidence provided me with an idea about where my Swedish ancestors came from, but to figure out why my grandfather left, I needed to go back to Sweden to where my ancestors lived and records of their lives are kept. You can follow my adventure when Allt för Sverige Season 5 premiers November 1, 2015.
Genetic research can potentially tell us so much more about ourselves than simply where our families came from and the likelihood of passing on a particular eye color to our children. Genetic expression, or the way genes determine our characteristics, is much more complex than a one-to-one, this gene determines that trait, basis. For the sake of clear explanation, I’ve simplified the interpretation of my DNA results.
16 Million Descendants of Genghis Khan
For my next steps, I plan to share my DNA with a Swedish nobility DNA project. I’m hoping to learn more about how interrelated these families are, and if there are any shared traits, like the mutation for hemophilia prominent among European royal houses, or to use data on relatedness to famous Swedes in history to extrapolate anecdotal information about a history of adventure-seeking. Learning more will help me to better understand myself and to make sense of where I fit in American society and world history.
There are many DNA projects that people who are curious to learn more about themselves can join. For example, DNA results on the “Y” male chromosome can determine if a man is one of the 16 million men worldwide descended from Genghis Khan, or are among the two to three million with a direct line to Niall of the Nine Hostages, a sexually-prolific 5th century Irish king. Studying DNA can offer tremendous insights that complement other ways we search for ourselves, such as archival research into family history and memoir.
Leave Your Own Legacy
Alexis and her partner, Siamak Naficy, are currently deciphering meanings from Patricia Hamilton’s DNA results, her family history, and life stories. Watch this column for updates on the process and the results. Alexis will also be contributing future Keepers of Our Culture columns about her research process and results. To research your ancestors, write or publish your life stories, contact Patricia for a free consultation. Park Place Publications, 591 Lighthouse Avenue #10, Pacific Grove, 831-649-6640, firstname.lastname@example.org.